Authors, bookstores, and “Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day”

TakeYourChildToABookstoreBannerSandra Hutchison interviews Jenny Milchman, award-winning author of three traditionally-published thrillers and the originator of Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day, which falls on the first Saturday in December.

Jenny, how did this special day come about?

Author Jenny Milchman

Author Jenny Milchman

Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day began back in 2010 when I had two preschool-aged children I was taking to story hour at our local bookstore almost every week. I got both a latte and the chance to watch their faces as someone besides Mommy brought a story to life. What fun. In our increasingly frenetic and — ironically — disconnected world, I wondered: Did all children know the joy of time spent in a bookstore?

Inspired by days such as Take Your Daughter to Work, I floated the idea for a special holiday linking kids and bookstores. Bloggers and listserv members took to the web and, before I knew it, 80 bookstores were celebrating just two weeks later, on the first Saturday of December.

It coincides with holiday gift giving, encouraging booksellers to host story hours, author events, craft and cooking demonstrations, and even magic shows designed to give kids a special activity while their parents shop and browse. Local businesses gain increased support and families have a wonderful time.

bookstore with kidsThat first summer, my husband and I packed our kids into the car and drove cross country, visiting bookstores with Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day bookmarks and posters. We saw the United States one bookstore at a time. The trip offered us a window into different regions of this great land, while driving home the reality of how we are connected. Books connect us in a deeper way than texts or followers do. A smile is not the same as an emoticon, and the virtual world is not a replacement for the face-to-face. We met real friends, different from Facebook friends, in bookstores on the road.

By the following year, Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day had grown to nearly 300 bookstores. And today TYCBD is celebrated by over 800 bookstores, including one national chain, on five continents. The celebrations are more lavish than ever — as unique as each bookstore in which they are held. Open Book in Wadena, MN, for example, is inviting a story-loving Great Pyrenees in so that the children can read to her!

What can readers do to help get the word out?

Easy! [Cue infomercial host voice] Just read this simple bulleted list for ideas and possibilities:

  • Visit your local bookstore and ask if they’re celebrating Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day on December 5th
  • Tell friends and families about the Day and identify bookstores they can visit using our interactive map: http://www.takeyourchildtoabookstore.org/bookstores
  • On December 5th, take your own children, a child in your life, or even the child inside yourself to a bookstore. I promise you will find a gift that keeps on giving long after the last page is turned.
  • Visit our website for more ways to spread the word: http://www.takeyourchildtoabookstore.org/spreadtheword

You’ve been networking with bookstores since before you even had a signed contract. Would you say that helped you on your way to traditional publication?

Sadly, I don’t think bookstores have that power, at least not at this point — but let’s keep celebrating Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day! However, my love of bookstores certainly influenced my career once it was finally launched. In fact, during the thirteen years it took me to get published, the whole world changed, and self-publishing became a viable option. The reason I held out for the traditional path had a lot to do with how integral bookstores (and libraries) were to my dream of becoming an author.

But supporting bookstores is a smart thing to do for any writer. The bookstore you frequent may one day stock your books. You may meet an author who helps you on your way. Your local bookstore might host a writers group that offers you feedback, a book club that features your book, or an event to celebrate your launch. The list goes on and on.

You’ve been on “The World’s Longest Book Tour” for three successful novels now. What are your top tips for working effectively with local bookstores on author events?

Yay! Another bulleted list. OK, here goes:

  • Understand the economics. Unless you routinely hit the NYT bestseller list, your event is likely to cost the bookstore more than it brings in. But that doesn’t mean they won’t want to hold one — bookstores are all about supporting their community.
  • Offer to do a “value-add” event, one that will be more of a draw than a straight reading or signing. Hold a writers’ workshop for emerging authors; teach a class related to something in your book — anything from genealogy to a craft; serve drinks and treats to make it a party; pair with another author to bring in more of a crowd.
  • Events should be a reciprocal effort: invite your own friends and contacts, seek out local media coverage, hang posters around town.
  • Don’t blast social media — your Instagram buddies in Nebraska may not hop on a plane to reach your local bookstore in Tennessee. Instead, identify friends and followers who live near you and send personal messages or invitations.
  • Consider hiring an independent publicity firm. I worked with JKS Communications and they had me in front of crowds of 300 when I was a brand new author.

You’ve been remarkably open to working with indie (self-published) colleagues with your “Made It Moments” blog and author appearances. Bookstore folks aren’t always huge fans of the indie phenomenon, for understandable reasons. How do you handle that tension?

Well, see above — many of the strategies I listed will help make you appealing to a bookseller whether you’re a traditionally published or indie author. But I think the key is to understand the situation from both sides. I’ve heard many an indie author say, “I’m giving them [the bookseller] something to sell! Why aren’t they appreciative?” Or words to that effect. And the truth is that until or unless you’re a bestselling author, your book likely costs the bookstore more than it will make off of it. Stocking charges, ordering — a bookseller at Bookstore Santa Cruz in California told me it takes 1/3 of a full-time work week for her employee simply to cut checks for indie authors. With traditionally published authors, the bookseller builds one order for a few key accounts and calls it a day. When pairing with indie authors for events, I am aware of these realities on the bookseller’s part, and I try to work with the author to help balance them.

But the other thing is that I deeply respect the indie publishing movement. There are authors who might never have had their work read now walking this very tough road — pioneering it in many cases. Even if there is some inevitable tension, it’s worth it to get to be a part of these writers’ lives, and to try to blend the two different paths. At the end of the day, we all have a great deal in common. We want to share books that we love with others who might love them too.

Do you have any recommendations for indies in particular in their relationship with bookstores?

Lots — see above — but I can boil it down to one main thing: understand the realities, economic and otherwise, of the world you are trying to enter. (Sandra chimes in here to state the obvious: Buy some books there!)

How about for people who are still hoping for that traditional contract?

Hang in there. This road tends to take longer — sometimes much, much longer — but that disadvantage is offset by a relative ease of entry once you do break through. Collect reads of your work, educate yourself about the industry, make contacts through targeted writing conferences, follow authors, agents, and editors online, and know this one indisputable fact: The book is never as ready as we think it is, and it can always, always be made better.

Tell us about a special time you had in a bookstore as a child.

I remember finding “Kramer Vs. Kramer” in my local bookstore — one of four my hometown had at that time. (It now has two). I wanted to read that novel more than anything. My parents weren’t getting divorced — in fact, they’ve now been married 53 years — but this was the early 80’s, and many families were going through the social upheaval of women returning to the work force and demanding more marital balance. I really related to Daddy Kramer’s struggles, and how they impacted his son.

Anyway, we couldn’t afford new books for the most part when I was a child, so I trudged to that bookstore day after day, until I had finally gulped down the whole, satisfying story. The bookseller never chastised me for reading for free. On the final day, when I was just about to finish, one of my parents showed up. I can’t even remember whether it was my mom or my dad. Whoever it was bought the book, which I read about twenty times after that.


Jenny Milchman is a New York State suspense writer who lived for eleven months on the road with her family on what Shelf Awareness called “the world’s longest book tour.”
After a thirteen year journey/trek/slog toward publication, Jenny’s debut novel, “Cover of Snow,” was acquired by Random House. It won the Mary Higgins Clark award, was praised by the New York Times, and chosen as an Indie Next and Target Pick. “Ruin Falls” was published the next year, and chosen as an Indie Next Pick and a Top Ten of 2014 by Suspense Magazine.

As Night Falls coverJenny’s third novel, “As Night Falls,” was published in June, 2015.

The most dangerous secret is the one you keep from yourself. When two escaped convicts show up at Sandy Tremont’s mountaintop home at the start of the season’s first snow storm, they unleash the most harrowing night of Sandy’s life—and a past she has kept from her family.

Learn more at jennymilchman.com.

Do your fight scenes have enough punch? An interview with A.C. Spahn

Sandra Hutchison interviews author A.C. Spahn, a martial artist, about writing good fight scenes.

A.C. Spahn with sword

Science fiction/fantasy author A.C. Spahn

Amy C. Spahn has been giving useful feedback on fight scenes to a number of fellow Awesome Indies authors recently, including me. While I used to write plenty of fights and the occasional battle in my fanfic days, I was a little surprised to realize there are also fights in my women’s fiction novels. But since conflict drives any plot forward, it makes sense that a good fight scene can be important to your success in almost any genre.

I’m also fascinated by what Amy says about the critical reception to just about any female character who fights.

Amy, why are fight scenes an important part of reading and writing?

Fight scenes are peerless tools for putting a character under pressure. When someone’s punching you, your reactions are completely real, completely unfiltered. You see the real character during a fight.

The circumstances leading up to a fight are also excellent character-building tools. What motivates a character to turn to physical violence tells you a lot about who they are as a person. I believe you don’t really know a character until you know what would provoke them to throw a punch, draw a weapon, and/or end a fight by lethal action.

What drew you to martial arts originally?

I’m not the sort of person who can just go to a gym and work out. I start looking out the window, counting ceiling tiles, etc. I need mental stimulation with my exercise. Martial arts training provides it.

When you throw a punch, you’ve got to think about a dozen little details: how high to aim, the shape and tightness of the fist, the torque in your hips, exhaling at the right time, etc. It’s a very mental game, especially when you string dozens of moves together in forms.

It’s also good for the soul. Since I started training, I’ve discovered a greater sense of inner peace. Even rejection letters on my writing have become easier to handle, because I’m used to pushing myself past my limits. This has been especially true since I passed my black belt test last February – a grueling four-hour ordeal where the final half was as much about psyching up for more punishment as it was the actual physical fitness. Once you’ve handled that, submitting a story to a magazine seems a lot less dangerous in contrast.

What’s your biggest pet peeve when reading fight scenes?

Fights that expect the reader to be invested, but give no thought to the details of the action. This generally takes the form of “Hero and Villain traded punches/sword strikes until one of them lost.” In these cases, the author wanted the reader to worry for the hero’s safety, but didn’t have anything particular in mind for how to make that occur. You might as well replace these scenes with the Shakespearean stage direction: “They fight.” This type of scene expects the reader to invent the drama for themselves, and it almost never works.

These scenes also annoy me because, while real fights only last seconds or minutes, particularly if weapons are involved, in perceived time they seem to last hours. When a fight happens in a book and is over in two sentences, it leaves no impression. It blows past like a light breeze, where it should have hit you like a dump truck. A good fight uses visceral words and well-placed sensory details to leave the reader as adrenaline-high as the characters. I want to smell the sweat and feel the blows, not assume they happened and move on.

How is fighting different for women than it is for men? What advantages does being female bring?

Like it or not, there’s a psychological difference between men and women in combat. This doesn’t apply to everyone, but in general men have an easier time being aggressive than women. Go to a first-time sparring class and you’ll see the men shrug and start hitting each other without much hesitation. In contrast, the women will apologize after every good shot they land. (Five years after starting to train, I still do this. My instructor says I’m allowed to say sorry as long as I hit the opponent again immediately afterward.) So we have a larger psychological barrier to overcome in order to get in the right head space for violence.

However, once that’s happened, I think the psychological power balance shifts. Most men feel a little funny about hitting a woman. It takes some time for them to decide it’s okay to strike back with their full power. That time is a perfect opportunity for the female combatant to deal some serious damage.

Physically, women tend to be smaller and suffer from height and weight disadvantages. I’m on the short side, so I have to get inside a taller person’s range in order to land any strikes. This is tough to do, but once I get there, they have a harder time landing power strikes, while I can still make full use of my range.

In short, the same things that are initial disadvantages can turn into advantages if you know how to use them.

What’s the hardest thing about writing female characters who can fight?

The same thing that’s hard about writing female characters in general. People will judge a female character as a representation of all women, everywhere, forever.

You write a fight where a woman loses, and you get one side going, “What, are you saying women can’t fight? That’s sexist!” You write a fight where she wins, and you get another side going, “Where’s her femininity? That’s sexist!” You have her win with no difficulty and people scream “Mary Sue!” You have her struggle and take a lot of good hits on the road to victory, and the same people howl about how you’re depicting violence against women.

At some point, you just have to accept that somebody will be offended by your female character in a fight scene and write her there anyway.

What do you think of the “warrior woman” character trope? Is this a step forward for women?

It really depends on how the trope is used. While I’m all for female characters who kick butt and save the men, sometimes writers use a woman with a gun or a sword as a substitute for a woman with a personality. She needs both.

There’s also a weird backlash against “warrior woman” characters who show their emotions. People act as if allowing a strong woman to break down is a disgrace to her inner strength and an attempt to weaken her for the audience.

I see it as evidence of the character having enough emotional fortitude to accept her feelings, or as a way to show the difficulty of the situation. When something makes the warrior break down, you know it’s serious. I think until we can treat male and female characters equally in this respect, the warrior woman trope will be a bit incomplete.

We first met when you volunteered to analyze other writers’ fight scenes and I offered one of mine — what inspired that initiative, and how’s it working out for you?

I love fight scenes – reading them, writing them, choreographing them. I’ve noticed that writers often struggle with fight scenes and default to the “hit each other over and over” trope I described above, so I thought other authors might appreciate having somewhere to go to ask questions when creating scenes of violence.

The reception so far has been positive. I received a bunch of submissions right up front, and while that has now tapered off, I’m leaving a submission form open on my site so people can submit more in the future: http://acspahn.com/fightsubs/

Tell us about your latest work, “Preferred Dead,” and how fight scenes play a key role in it.

Endurance thumbnailThe book features a “warrior woman” in the character of Areva Praphasat. She’s the security chief of the UELE Endurance and has a background in undercover operations. However, she’s decided she doesn’t want to be the last thing someone sees before they die, so now she’ll only shoot at people who can’t see her coming. The other characters all have odd traits like that, and so United Earth Law Enforcement put them on the same ship to try to keep them out of the way, but their inadvertent brilliance keeps landing them in the middle of things.

“Preferred Dead” is the fourth novella in the series, though readers should be able to jump right in and follow what’s going on. The Endurance finds a planet that has been completely overrun by zombies, and the crew has to determine what caused the infection while simultaneously struggling to pass a performance evaluation.

The fights carry the story forward and illustrate various aspects of the zombies’ capabilities, which in turn help the crew figure out what happened to them. A fight late in the story also serves as a catalyst for conversation between Areva and her love interest, the trigger-happy first officer. While Areva isn’t a point-of-view character in this installment, there should be plenty of fun action for fight scene aficionados.

Many thanks to A.C. Spahn for sharing her insights with us! Learn more about her at her website, and find her books at Amazon or at Awesome Indies.

How long can one page take to load?

Pretty long, apparently, especially while trying to draft and edit this post. For the last couple of weeks I’ve noticed a significant drop-off in traffic at my site, even during a promotion and a mailing to my audience, which is seems peculiar.

Have I suddenly become that much less interesting? Or is this a clue–?

Bluehostmisery11-12That’s an awful lot of downtime in a very short time.

Wrangling with Bluehost on Twitter resulted in an apparent fix — far fewer downtime reports, though still some — except that traffic hasn’t really recovered. Perhaps it is taking thirty seconds or more for my pages to load. Or it just fails completely, as it has done repeatedly tonight.

So, rather than posting something insightful here when I’m pretty much brain-fried (from running a promotion — “The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire” is free on Kindle through midnight tonight, Monday — AND grading research papers) I have a question for you:

Can you see this post at all? Because I can’t even get a site that tests page load time to load it.

Let me know, if you can. And in the meantime, I’ll be looking for a solution.

What gets a writer happy dancing?

Happy-dance

Being a writer isn’t easy. Sometimes I feel as if I’m boldly seeking out new ways to experience humiliation.

That’s why we really need our good excuses for a happy dance.

Julia Spencer-Fleming tweeting about my book!
So: Woo hoo! And I’m going to say that counts as a blurb, right?

But there are, of course, other occasions that make authors want to dance:

  • The first good review by someone you don’t know in the slightest.
  • Any meaty review that suggests someone “got” exactly what you were going after.
  • The first positive review that arrives after a nasty one that sat up there at the top of the “most recent” reviews.
  • When someone highlights a section of your work that you particularly love, too.
  • Watching on Kindle Unlimited or Goodreads as someone swallows your book whole.
  • The first time you sell more than a hundred copies in a single day.
  • A single sale anywhere when they’re not coming steadily anymore.
  • When a librarian says not only do they want to have you talk, they want to buy ten copies of your paperback.
  • When a librarian posts a great review of your book on her library’s site.
  • When colleagues or friends make references to you as a “famous author” and aren’t being sarcastic. (Wrong, yes, but at least not sarcastic.)
  • When you finally find a good way to write yourself out of a plot corner in your current draft.
  • When you find out your book got clicked on or downloaded far above a promoter’s usual range.
  • When you discover a new way to promote that looks as if it might actually allow you to make some money.
  • When a blog post or tweet goes viral.
  • When you get whatever yes you’ve been driving toward … publication somewhere, a full, an agent, a contract, a second contract … even if you know it’s just one milestone on a long, long road.

How about you? Have you had any good reasons to happy dance recently?

Girls, women, boobs, bras, and the march of time

A flat chest and smoking … two things that are not as stylish today as they once were.

This post was inspired by a new event at the local arts center that seeks to collect new bras for women living at the local YWCA. I know some of those women, and I think it’s a great cause. Although I clothe myself largely out of thrift stores, I know that the chance of ever finding a bra I’d want to wear in a thrift store is pretty slim.

It got me thinking about my own fraught relationship with support garments.

Today I have what doctors call “medium-sized breasts” on their mammography reports. But I’m not really a fan of what they call medium. They seem annoyingly big and floppy to me, especially now, as middle age and gravity set in.

I wish I were smaller. Like I was in junior high. Except not really. Because I hated being as small as I was then — smaller than EVERYONE ELSE. Once in seventh grade a girl sitting behind me in music class tried to flick my bra and realized I didn’t have one on. Or maybe she’d already known. “Why aren’t you wearing a bra?” she asked — loudly.

Everybody’s head swiveled our way. This was meant to shame me, of course. Who can resist a good public body shaming in seventh grade?

“Because I don’t need one,” I said, my tone pitched to suggest that she was an idiot.

“Oh,” she said, and dropped that line of attack completely. I had successfully faked her out. Because, of course, I was only pretending that I wasn’t horrified at being called out to the whole class for my bra-less state.

Seventh grade was when we first started changing for gym class and realized that we were in a grim race to develop just enough at just the right time to avoid the shame of being too big, too small, too flat, too busty, too tall, too short, too fat, too hairy, or not hairy enough.

And I was way, way behind. A boy who had a tube draining fluid from his brain was the only reason I wasn’t the shortest kid in the whole junior high school. And he was of no help at all when it came to me being the flattest.

So I didn’t need a bra yet, not at all, but I went home that day and told my mom I wanted one. It would, of course, be a training bra, which is a really weird term, as if breasts need to be trained to grow into the right shape, or putting on bras requires balance and skill. I suppose it’s really about training us into the idea that we’re probably going to be wearing one of these contraptions every day for the rest of our natural lives.

I stayed in training bras for a while. My height shot up in eighth grade, but my breasts took longer to develop. I actually grew almost inch in height my freshman year of college and I think I grew one or two cup sizes then, too. It was more than I was willing to admit, so my bras were too small for a good part of my life.

From what I’ve read, cup size denial is a major force in the universe. It’s why women are often urged to get expert bra fittings. I once tried to seek help at a Victoria’s Secret when I needed a foundation undergarment for a fancy dress that just wouldn’t work with any bra straps. It was awful. The clerks were young and had tiny perky breasts and had no idea what to do with a woman who didn’t know that she should have gone to Macy’s and thrown herself on the mercy of some older clerk who really knew her way around mommy boobs.

Through trial and error in that Victoria’s Secret dressing room with those terrible strapless foundation garments, I did finally discover that I was a whole cup larger than I thought. Apparently straps can let you get away with a really bad bra fit, or at least allow you to think you’re getting away with it.

In the back of my mind I also thought that when I got older, all bra-related angst would disappear. Why would I even need a bra? Who’d care whether I wore something under my frumpy old lady clothes? There would be no more gym classes, and no more mean girls.

But I wasn’t counting on gravity. Now, when I sit around the house without a bra on, I get boob sweat under them. And I once saw a boyfriend’s frail elderly grandmother’s breasts when I was helping her get dressed. They were long and skinny and so pendulous she probably could have thrown them over her shoulder. She was in her nineties and she still needed her bra.

That’s why I applaud the organizers for putting this event together, and why I contributed some money towards bras myself (they’re getting a good wholesale rate on them). I’m not going this year, maybe because I subconsciously associate formal dinners with things like that closet at Victoria’s Secret. If you’d like to hear other women’s tales about their bras, though, it should be quite entertaining!

In other news….

MissionaryDatingfinal“Missionary Dating and Other Stories” has been free for the last month, but I’m about to either price it up or take it down. It’s not doing much but serving as a distraction. I’d say the market has spoken on that one. So if you ever wanted it, now’s a good time to grab it.

You may wonder why I don’t pull down “The Short, Spectacular Indie-Publishing Career of Matilda Walter” while I’m at it, since it only has two Kindle reviews, but I’ve noticed that after someone downloads that one, a paid purchase is like as not to follow. So Wally and Jonathan and their little romantic comedy are at least earning their keep.